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Health chiefs committed to £7m suicide strategy

Seanín Graham

An increase in suicide rates in Northern Ireland more than a decade ago - with numbers almost doubling since the late 1990s - led to calls for government action and the current £7m per-year funding given to the north's suicide prevention strategy.

Behind-the-scenes talks between health officials and local support groups lobbying for a strategy on suicide, similar to a successful model in Scotland, began in 2003.

A task force was set up with an initial £1m investment, but it wasn't until October 2006 that the north's suicide prevention strategy started its roll-out - with extra money on board. An annual £7m in Department of Health funding is now given to the initiative.

'Protect Life' aimed to cut the north's suicide rate and included public information campaigns, training for front-line medical staff, work in prisons, services for survivors of abuse, a dedicated 24-hour helpline and a self-harm registry.

By 2010, suicide rates had reached their highest levels, with 313 recorded for the year - the vast majority of which occurred in men (240 deaths). Poorer areas, including pockets of north and west Belfast, were seriously affected.

While there was a decline in the number of deaths over the next two years, numbers rose again in 2013, with 303 suicides.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the rates were "inextricably linked with deprivation".

"The aim of the Protect Life Strategy is to reduce the differential in the suicide rate between the most and the least deprived communities," she said.

She pointed to the range of services that have been developed under the strategy including: the 24/7 helpline Lifeline, a self-harm registry and self-harm prevention support, community-led initiatives (bereavement support, training, awareness raising, counselling), research into suicide and self-harm and emergency community response arrangements when suicide "clusters" appear.

The Department also noted a drop in the suicide rate last year, which they linked to the "excellent work" of Protect Life.

A consultation on an updated strategy will take place later this year.

The PHA is also undertaking a procurement process for a wide range of suicide prevention, self harm and mental and emotional wellbeing support services, and are consulting on the future model for the Lifeline service.

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